Restaurant life is fast, and everything is about speed. Sometimes you get too wrapped up in paperwork or running the numbers to remember that you have an interview at 1 p.m. All of a sudden, your candidate is here — so you wing it.
But here’s the thing: Job applicants can always tell when the person interviewing them is prepared, and when they're not. When you're familiar with an interviewee's impressive resume feats (or even just their name), you set a tone of respect that clues potential job candidates into how they'll be treated if they're hired to work in your restaurant.
Interviews work both ways. You’re trying to decide if this candidate is the right fit for your business and will work well with your other employees; they are trying to determine if you seem like a good person to work for. Maybe they’ve already had a great interview today, and you being unprepared just solidified their choice to work for your competitor.
If you’ve put a job description up, your goal is to hire the best person you can. Make the caliber of your interview process fit the caliber of candidates you’re looking for.
Preparing for the Interview
When you seem prepared, calm, and excited to get to know the person you’re interviewing, you’ll be much more likely to get the information you need to know whether or not you want to hire them.
To get ready, think about the role you’re hiring for and the job description you wrote for it. What does your candidate need to succeed? If you have trouble thinking of questions at first, don’t worry! You’ll find an expansive list later in this guide.
It’s also important to do your homework before writing questions, so you’re not asking for information already in the candidate’s application. Comb over their resume and read letters of recommendation, if provided, so you don’t waste precious time.
Interview standardization is a key factor in mitigating hiring bias (which we will dive deeper into later), so try to have a rough agenda that you follow for each interview. It’s useful to clear 10–15 minutes before and after an interview time slot to ensure you’re dedicating the same amount of time to each person, and leaving yourself enough room for additional questions. You should also decide beforehand if you’ll start with a description of the role, or ask the interviewee to talk about themselves and their accomplishments first. With a general game plan like this in place, you’ll look prepared and attentive while granting equal opportunity to each applicant.
Assembling a Hiring Team
Hiring in restaurants, especially small ones, is often conducted by one person. While this may be done out of necessity, it's worth making time for a seasoned employee or other team member to conduct an extra interview or simply meet with an applicant to answer any questions they may have about the position. It may seem inconvenient during a busy shift, but this extra step can save you in the long run. Getting a second opinion from the people on your staff who will be working with a new hire can save you the trouble of training someone who doesn't stick around.
Distributing hiring to a team of several employees also gives your job candidates a speedier process. Restaurants with multiple managers can assemble a team that consists of, for example, someone who recruits candidates to apply, someone who weeds through resumes and passes the good ones along, and a designated interviewer. The team can then decide the best fit for the position together, making the process more transparent overall. Like any great team, roles should be assigned based on the individual strengths of your team members.
Understanding What You're Looking for
Before you begin interviews, take a moment to remind yourself why you’re hiring this candidate. According to the National Restaurant Association, it can cost up to $2,000 to hire and train a new staff member, so it’s best to establish your motivation before you start bringing candidates in.
Understanding what and who you’re looking for can also alert you to any diversity red flags in your hiring mindset. We often look for candidates that remind us of ourselves, which will not help bring parity to the restaurant industry.
Acknowledging bias is the first step in creating a diverse workforce, and acting on it is the next step. There are a lot of resources to help people identify their own biases, and these are crucial for restaurant managers who conduct frequent interviews. Bias training can help balance unfair assumptions, and cultivate self-awareness of biases we carry with us every day.
“A lot of it comes down to your internal culture. From a hiring perspective, so much of what brings people in is through networks.”
If your business has a reputation for being open to women or minorities and supporting them when they’re hired, your applicant pool will be that much wider.
“At the end of the day, if you can build a solid community that opens up a dialogue [through events] like trainings, or different networking events, you will attract diverse candidates,” Castle said. “Think about what’s going to keep people there, and the culture that you’re building.”
Covering the Basics
We know that you put a lot of time and effort into your value-driven job descriptions, but even those don’t cover everything the candidate will want to know about the job and its responsibilities.
In the interview, you should dedicate some time to describing the technicalities of the job. What’s the position title, what are the primary responsibilities and skills required to complete them? Will this person be managing a team, and how many people are on that team? Who does this person report to, and what is that person like?
This may seem redundant, but covering these things during the interview will help inform the potential employee what they’re getting into. If this role requires long hours, you must be upfront about it. It also gives you a chance to get into the details you couldn’t fit into the job description.
Sometimes, covering the basics also means discussing salary. Many interviewers like to avoid this subject during the first interview, but it’s a question that may come up and one that you shouldn’t be afraid to answer. You should go into each interview with a salary number in your head, and know whether or not you have room to negotiate — your applicant will appreciate your forthrightness, and you won’t waste time on a potential mismatch.
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The Questions: Experience
Questions about a candidate’s experience should be tailored to each individual applicant. So instead of giving you a list of basic, tired questions to ask, we’ll introduce John Smith.
John Smith just applied to your open server position, and sent you the resume below.
In this section of his resume, he lists a summary, skills, contact information, and two previous restaurant experiences. From his experience at Mara Stellum, we know that he has performed the duties of a server and knows the menu enough to answer questions about it.
Here are some questions we can ask John based on this:
How would you upsell an item to a customer at your previous restaurants?
How long did it take you to become familiar with the menu at Mara Stellum?
What did you do when a mistake was made with a customer’s order?
At Javion.Javier, John welcomed customers and assisted other servers when necessary. He was also at this restaurant for a little over three years, so this is where he got most of his training.
Here are some questions we can ask based on this:
What customer service skills did you learn from your training at Javion.Javier?
How would your experience in fine dining translate to our restaurant?
Why did you dedicate three years to this restaurant, and what made you decide to leave?
As you can tell, these questions are very specific to John. Experience questions should be as nitty-gritty and detailed as possible. Don’t waste your candidate’s time with questions that could be answered by looking at the descriptions provided on their resume.
Don’t be afraid to walk into an interview with these questions written down, too. You don’t want to be reading off a piece of paper for the duration of the interview -—you should allow the conversation to flow — but it’s normal to have a list of questions.
The Questions: Skills
Now that you’ve given an overview of your restaurant; detailed the functions, responsibilities, and additional expectations associated with the role; and asked some questions about the candidate’s experience, it’s time to see if they have the skills needed for this position.
Necessary skills vary significantly between positions. A manager will need a different skill set than a bartender. A line cook may not need to know the ins and outs of how to run a host stand.
Let’s pretend you’re looking for a new manager. You’ll want details about the candidate’s management experience, which you can gain by asking questions like this:
How many people did you manage, and in what kind of environment?
How many seats were there, and what types of hours were you open?
How would you manage an underperforming employee?
How would you maintain an empowered, engaged team?
Some other things you could cover:
Areas for improvement: What part of the management role do you find most challenging?
Which tools or technology have you used in the past to get the job done?
Kitchen management knowledge: Describe how you handle a Friday night in the back of the house. What kind of capacity are you used to handling?
Business management knowledge: What strategies have you used or would you use to protect a restaurant’s bottom line?
As mentioned earlier, these questions completely change if you’re looking for a bartender. Bartending requires lots of technical and social skills. You probably won’t know how skilled this person is until they step behind the bar, but here are some questions that will send you in the right direction:
How quickly can you memorize a new cocktail recipe?
Can you tell me about a drink menu you developed, why you chose the ingredients you did, and how it catered to your clientele?
Describe an item from your menu and ask the candidate to pair a drink with it. Ask: Why did you make that pairing?
Introduce a sticky situation that the bartender may find themself in, then ask a question about how they’d handle it. For example: How would you handle a minor trying to order a drink? How would you handle a rowdy customer with no bouncer?
It’s also a good idea to inquire about general hospitality skills. When you’re hiring restaurant staff, it's easy to assume candidates are coming in with a basic grasp of hospitality skills, but here are a few questions that can help you make sure they’ve got the tableside manner you’re looking for:
Tell me about a time you had to handle an unhappy customer.
Describe your work ethic.
What are some problems you’ve faced in the workplace, and what did you do to solve them proactively?
Which quality do you think is more critical: empathy or intelligence? Why?
Have you ever received criticism about your job performance that you weren’t expecting?
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The Questions: Culture
The interview is a great time to highlight workplace culture. The ideal candidate is not only skilled, but will work well with your employees — and likewise, they're looking for a culture that suits them, too.
But looking for a good culture fit can easily veer into searching for a person who directly mirrors what you’ve already established in your workplace culture. The last thing you want is for all of your employees to look, think, and act alike — you need diverse perspectives and attitudes to provide mixed points of view, and ultimately bring creative solutions to the problems that arise in your restaurant.
Instead of looking for someone who will fit your restaurant’s mold, search for someone who will add to it. A good culture fit doesn’t look like shared traits — it looks like a shared enthusiasm for the restaurant.
Here are a few questions to help you see how a candidate could add to your restaurant’s culture:
Tell me about your most memorable hospitality experience.
Tell me about your first job in the restaurant industry and how you ended up there.
Tell me about a time you had to disappoint a guest and what you learned from it.
What kind of role do you like to play on a team?
What’s a personal value of yours?
Why do you want to work with this team?
What do you bring to this restaurant?
How do you work with others?
What do you look for in a team?
The Questions: Their Turn
You should always give time for candidates to ask questions during or after the interview. This gives them a chance to show you that they did their research and are engaged with the restaurant, and also allows them to get a better understanding of the job and culture. This will benefit you in the short run, by showing you how invested they are in the position, and in the long run — the more a candidate understands what they’re getting into, the more likely you are to retain them as an employee.
Giving a Timeline
Another important step in any interview is the provision of a timeline for the hiring process. Give the candidate an idea of when they can expect to hear from you. Give a timeline that matches your availability — if you have a habit of getting back to candidates with an initial offer a week after their interview, tell them they’ll hear from you in a week. Two weeks should be the maximum for getting back to candidates (but even that is pushing it).
You should also give candidates’ your email address so they can contact you with any questions, then let them know your decision as quickly as you can after the interview. A desirable candidate is likely to get scooped up by neighboring businesses quickly, and it looks unprofessional to leave someone hanging for too long.
But even if the interview went perfectly, you should refrain from offering someone a job on the spot. It’s ok to let them know how interested you are without explicitly offering the position, but you’ll want to give yourself a day, or maybe the afternoon, to check with this person’s professional references, especially if you’re hiring for a management position.
What happens when the interview didn’t go so well? The worst thing you can do is ghost a candidate. If this person took time out of their day to come in for an interview, you should take five minutes to email them and let them know you’ve decided to go in another direction. We all hate rejection, but it’s essential to keep people informed.
While this guide will provide you with enough questions to fill a 30-minute interview, the best interviews come from preparing and knowing about your candidate ahead of time. You don’t have to memorize their resume, but having a general understanding of their experience will save you time and allow you to dive into meatier questions.
Take inspiration from our questions and tailor them to the experience level and profession of your candidates. Get excited about new team members who can add diverse perspectives and experiences to your team. And if you need help, recruit a helper or team to go through resumes with you or cover half of your scheduled interviews.
Running a great interview is just one of the steps to creating a fantastic hiring process, and hiring the right employees is the only way to run a great business.
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If you take the time to hire (and train) people whose values align with yours, you won’t be replacing them any time soon.